“What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed. If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore.”
German-born American political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke those words in a 1973 interview, but considering our current cultural and political climate, she could have spoken them yesterday.
Since taking office, each week brings some new piece of divisiveness from President Trump. From attacking tweets to condemnation of the press whom he has labeled “Fake News,” and “the enemy of the people,” Donald Trump excels at denigrating anyone and any institution who challenges him like no previous president. Just yesterday, Trump continued his scorched-earth policy with his assault on the reputation of law enforcement by demanding that the Department of Justice investigate itself.
Former National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor, tweeted:
“This is crossing a massive red line. Trump is forcing DOJ to conduct a politicized investigation – something he himself conceded he shouldn’t do. Someone in the Republican Party needs to stand up to this bullshit right now.”
So, how do we reconcile the divisiveness of Trump with our values as Americans?
From his 2004 book, Why Courage Matters, Senator John McCain writes:
“Most of us accept social norms: that it’s right to be honest, to respect the rights of others, to have compassion. But accepting the appropriateness of these qualities, wanting them, and teaching our children to want them aren’t the same as actually possessing them. Accepting their validity isn’t moral courage. How honest are we if we tell the truth most of the time and stay silent only when telling the truth might get us fired or earn us a broken nose? We need moral courage to be honest all the time.”
In September 2017, former Vice-President Joe Biden offered these words regarding America’s values:
“Reclaiming our values starts with standing up for them at home — inclusivity, tolerance, diversity, respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of the press.”
Sadly, we have a president whose voice is openly hostile to honesty, compassion, tolerance and the rule of law. Despite a growing mountain of evidence that he is self-serving, vindictive, even hateful at times, 40 percent of the country supports Mr. Trump.
Nonetheless, given Mr. Trump’s history with the truth, his attacks against the Department of Justice, Attorney General Sessions, Deputy Rod Rosenstein, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray – all individuals he himself appointed – supporters might want to take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves whom they believe: a president whose misstatements and lies number in the thousands since taking office, or individuals who stand for the values of honesty, integrity and the rule of law?
From an ethical perspective, the values of civic virtue and citizenship mean that we have a duty that extends beyond our own interests. It means serving on a jury, paying taxes, reporting crimes, protecting our environment, supporting charitable causes, and voting, to name a few. The duty to vote also carries the obligation to consider all points of view in light of the facts. Perhaps the best argument for truth and facts came from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a recent speech to the Virginia Military Institute.
“A government structure and a societal understanding that the freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself,” Tillerson told an audience of graduates.
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.
“A responsibility of every American citizen to each other,” Tillerson says, “is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not. What a fact is and is not. And begin by holding ourselves accountable through truthfulness and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking; not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises, but with a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges. …
“If we do not, as Americans, confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both public and private sector,” Tillerson warns, “then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”
Answering the second question is more difficult.
How does the country come together?
First, we need to recognize that the country has been through numerous crises in the past beginning with a Revolutionary War to declare our own independence followed by, possibly the greatest crisis in division, the Civil War, which cost 620,000 lives. And yet, the country healed.
Perhaps, it would be helpful to reflect on Lincoln’s words from his first inaugural address during that crisis.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
So, how do we get in touch with those angels, again?
In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, author and cognitive-psychologist Stephen Pinker offers four thoughts:
- Empathy: which, Pinker notes “prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own.”
- Self-Control: which “allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly.”
- The Moral Sense: which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture.” These sometimes decrease violence but can also increase it “when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical.”
- Reason: which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.”
From an ethical standpoint, I would add:
Respect: to treat others with courtesy civility and decency. Let’s accept other’s beliefs and differences without prejudice.
Responsibility: to be accountable for what we say and do, and that if we wish to “preserve and protect our freedom,” as Tillerson says, we do so “by recognizing what truth is and is not.”
For my part, I will no longer falsely label as “woefully ignorant” those Americans who support Mr. Trump. It’s disrespectful and only contributes to a polarizing climate.
That does not mean, however, that I will stop reprimanding this president when he crosses the lines of honesty, responsibility, decency, and laws that govern us all.
What I will do is continue to call him out when he manipulates, lies, and dishonor’s both the process and individuals in law enforcement who have dedicated themselves to justice and the rule of law absent politics.